This is a story about baseball that’s not just about baseball.
On Sunday, the New York Yankees defeated the Houston Astros in dramatic fashion, thanks to a walk-off home run from Aaron Judge, their franchise star. Winning is nothing new for the Yankees, who have the best record in the sport, but what came after was a bit unusual.
In a post-game interview on the field, Judge was asked by the Yankees’ television network how the team manages to play with such confidence even when behind in the late innings. (The Yankees have by far the most comeback wins in the game.) Judge’s answer quickly went viral on social media:
This response raised eyebrows for several reasons. For one, it was entirely out of character for the reserved and self-effacing Judge. His words also weren’t responsive to the actual question posed by the interviewer; she asked Judge about where the team gets its confidence, not where he does. Finally, such a response constituted a rare departure from official Yankees messaging discipline. Because the team operates in baseball’s biggest media market, the Yankees subject their players to extensive publicity training to ensure that they never say anything interesting like this. From day one, players are conditioned to respond to all queries with platitudes like “good team win, great execution.” Basically like so:
REPORTER: We’ll get to the game in a moment, but first, do you have any thoughts about the recent coup in Washington and the deportation of Congress and their pets to the salt mines of Finland?
PLAYER: Good team win, great execution!
In short, it seems very unlikely that Judge would call himself “the best player on the team” on the Yankees’ own broadcast network.
So what actually happened? Watch the clip again, but ignore the caption:
Judge didn’t say he was the “best player on the team.” What he actually said was, “When you’re the best planet on the team, how could you not?” He meant to say “best team on the planet,” but in his understandable exuberance, he swapped the two words and uttered a nonsensical sentence. The problem is this: Our brains are designed to make meaning out of the sounds we hear, and so they immediately adjust Judge’s exclamation to the more sensible—but inaccurate—“best player on the team.”
Judge regularly uses the stock phrase “best team on the planet”—he did so later after this game. By the next day, he had officially clarified his words and the entire thing had become a meme:
This story is funny and inconsequential, but there are many others like it that are not. One unfolded at another baseball game, this time in Colorado.
On August 8, 2021, social media erupted after a fan behind home plate at a Rockies-Marlins game was caught on air repeatedly shouting the N-word, while Lewis Brinson, a Black player, was at bat. The audio was caught on the official broadcast, and led to tens of thousands of incensed tweets, including from prominent journalists and personalities outside the sports world. The Rockies immediately issued a statement of condemnation, while the opposing team’s announcer excoriated the incident on air. Reporters began to hunt for the offending man in the stands.
The next day, they found him, and everything changed. It turned out that he was a grandfather who was at the game with his family. He had not shouted the N-word. He had shouted “Dinger!”—the name of the Rockies’ purple dinosaur mascot—hoping to get a picture of him with his grandchildren.
This reporting by local news outlets was later confirmed by the Rockies’ own exhaustive inquiry:
After a thorough investigation that included calls, emails, and video clips from concerned fans, media, and broadcast partners, the Colorado Rockies have concluded that the fan was indeed yelling for Rockies mascot Dinger in hopes of getting his attention for a photo, and there was never any racial slur that occurred.
The Marlins announcer apologized on Twitter for his mistaken condemnation, while others quietly deleted their outraged tweets. Some media outlets belatedly corrected the record. But real people were hurt in this story, from members of the Black community who were subjected to a false instance of a racial slur to the grandfather who was besieged by reporters and frightened over an inoffensive utterance. This was the inevitable consequence of a video going viral before anyone figured out what actually happened.
As I noted earlier, these mistakes are the natural result of the way our brains operate. Our minds fill in auditory ambiguity with whatever seems most plausible. Usually, this helps us catch things that are hard to hear, like a conversation in a loud concert venue. But sometimes, it leads us astray. Consider this YouTube clip:
Did you hear “brainstorm” or “green needle”? It turns out that you will hear whatever you expect to hear. (Try it again and listen for yourself.)
This doesn’t just happen in baseball. It also happens in situations with high political and social stakes. Back in August 2020, a video of a racial-justice protest went viral for the wrong reasons. According to initial reports, the marchers had chanted, “F— the Jew, kill the cop.” Footage that appeared to support this story quickly circulated among right-wing social-media accounts. But subsequent reporting revealed that what the protesters had actually been chanting was, “Prosecute killer cops.”
Mistakes like these stem from their seeming plausibility. Racism and anti-Semitism are living forces in our society, and slurs are unfortunately part of that reality. But awareness of this reality also provides the intellectual architecture that can lead us to false conclusions.
The problem is that our biases make us unreliable observers—and enable others to more easily manipulate us. Scammers and click farmers seeking to garner outrage and followers know that they can take ambiguous clips and present them in the most inflammatory fashion, and that many of us will fall for it, particularly when the deceptive framing confirms things we already believe about the world.
Viral videos can be captioned inaccurately to mislead us, making our minds think that they are hearing words that were never spoken. Clips can be selectively cut to omit key and exculpatory context, as was the case with footage of Covington Catholic High School student Nicholas Sandmann, who was raked over the social-media coals for allegedly confronting a Native American man when in fact the opposite transpired. (He later received settlements from multiple media outlets.)
Precisely because I’ve been misled by videos like these in the past, I’ve become far more cautious about them in the present. If I can’t personally confirm the contents of a clip, I don’t spread it. I suggest you do the same. When you encounter something that pushes your buttons, don’t immediately hit the share button. After all, if the viral video is accurate, careful reporting over time will bear that out, and you’ll be able to confidently post the material then. If it’s not, you’ll have saved yourself some embarrassment and protected our information ecosystem from even greater pollution. Weighed against these benefits, patience is a small price to pay.
Thank you for reading this edition of Deep Shtetl, a newsletter about the unexplored intersections of politics, culture, and religion. Be sure to subscribe if you haven’t already. As always, send your thoughts, comments, and carefully crafted hoaxes to firstname.lastname@example.org.